There’s a petition on the Downing Street website at the moment, organised by supporters of an English parliament, which urges the prime minister to actually say ‘England’, rather than ‘the country’ or ‘our country’ (or even ‘Britain’), when he means England: when he refers to matters such as health, education and housing where (as a result of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) his ‘competence’ (to use an EU-speak term) or area of responsibility is in fact limited to England. But he can’t bring himself to do so as his recent ‘Brit-eulogy’ at the Labour Party conference and his inability to praise the England rugby team on behalf of England testified.
Why can’t our prime minister acknowledge or speak on behalf of the country that makes up 85% of the population of the nation he supposedly leads? This is more than a matter of semantics. The answer to this question goes to the heart of the identity of ‘our nation’; of Scots’ continuing engagement with it post-devolution and after a possible full independence; and of the survival, or not, of the Union if the Scots did set off on their own.
First, let’s recap a bit of history. If you took only the words of Gordon Brown [or GB as I like to call him: if he can’t refer to a country by its name but can talk only of ‘Britain’, I won’t refer to him by his name and will just call him ‘GB’ – the personification of Britain, indeed], then ‘our country’ is Britain. But Britain or Great Britain does not exist as a nation. There was a nation called Great Britain (more fully, the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’; also informally known as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’) that was established by the Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England (which incorporated the principality of Wales) and Scotland in 1707. This nation or state lasted only 93 years till the further Act of Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. This established the name of the state as the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This in turn was given its present name of ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 1927 to reflect the reality of Irish partition and independence.
This latter event creates a historical precedent for what would presumably happen if the Scots became an independent nation before some solution changing the constitutional relationships between all the countries of the UK was reached. As the Union that is the UK encompasses more than just the union of England and Scotland but also two other unions (the union of England and Wales that existed since the 13th century, and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), these two other unions would remain in effect, albeit altered, if Scotland left. This would in fact see the demise of ‘Great Britain’ (and by extension, ‘Britain’) as a name for the continuing state. But we would still have a United Kingdom: ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, maybe. That is, until the probably inevitable further break up of such a unitary state into three more independent or federal nations!
Or would we? The on-off New Labour plans to break up England into a number of regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales could be a way to pre-empt the break up of ‘Britain’ / ‘Great Britain’ by creating a ‘Britain of nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the ‘former England’]’, as it’s been called. If Scotland were to break off from such a ‘Britain’, this could then be construed as a de facto region of Britain establishing itself as a separate nation. The continuing ‘British nation’ could then be named something like the ‘United Kingdom of Britain [not Great Britain any more with Scotland no longer in it], Wales and Northern Ireland’; or, hell, why not just go the whole hog and call it the ‘United Kingdom of Britain’ (‘Britain’ for short) – because if there’s no administrative difference between the regions of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as they’re all run by devolved assemblies), there’s no reason to acknowledge any of them separately in the name of the state. Welsh and Northern Irish people could still informally refer to their countries as if they were nations; but well, England, you’ve always been proud of your history, and now that’s all you are!
Is this just a fantasy or, rather, nightmare scenario? Well, the total inability of GB to officially acknowledge the existence of an entity we like to call England isn’t reassuring at a time when he’s carrying out a constitutional reform process which – we learnt last week – will enshrine long-established British (yes, it’s that word again) principles of rights and responsibilities. And there’s a more well founded basis for these fears based on, yes, history again.
This is that England, like Great Britain, does not officially exist as a nation. It’s just that England ceased to exist from the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 (becoming Great Britain, as above); and Great Britain ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity (albeit it’s included in the name of the state) in 1800 with the union with Ireland. Scotland’s leaving [Great] Britain doesn’t of itself re-create an England: it would just leave a United Kingdom of Britain that – if England had not been granted devolution prior to Scotland’s independence – would in fact officially be more like the regionalised-England model: a United Kingdom defined and named officially as a Britain with certain powers devolved to two ‘countries’ and a number of regions.
In other words, the Britologists’ or British nationalists’ view would appear to boil down to the statement, ‘if England does not exist (as it doesn’t now, officially), why go to the trouble of creating a “new” nation called England – either prior to full Scottish independence or after it – if we can preserve a unitary state under its ‘existing’ (unofficial) banner of “Britain”?’ For these people, the Union / UK is synonymous with ‘Britain’; and so is England – for them – as England (sub)merged its identity, through the Union of Scotland, with that of Great Britain. From this perspective, any (re-)establishment of a separate entity called England would indeed represent the de-construction of the Union: its splitting into a separate England and Scotland.
But this is not true: the Union is greater than the Union between England and Scotland alone. As indicated above, it also incorporates a more long-standing union between England and Wales, and a union between a Great Britain including England and Wales with Northern Ireland. So the establishment of a distinct political and national identity for England – whether in the context of Scottish independence or not – in no way intrinsically subverts the Union / UK. It’s just that if Scotland but not the other nations broke off, it could be re-named, as I’ve suggested, the ‘United [and / or Federal] Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’; with the continuing participation of Scotland, this could be the ‘United [Federal] Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. But both scenarios do indeed do away with a unitary ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain’, which hasn’t officially existed since 1800 in any case. So it’s not the Union that is threatened by English devolution and / or Scottish independence, but Britain.
So why do the supposed ‘Britological’ (Brit-illogical) defenders of the Union want to perpetuate the lie(s) that a) Britain is a nation (it’s not; the UK is); b) that the Union means Britain (which it doesn’t); and that c) ‘England’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that it’s – officially – only a nameless part of [Great] Britain)? To some extent, these myths could be characterised as a delusion as much as they are a deception. English people have historically, and until quite recent times, merged and conflated the English and British national identities: England did invest its identity and ambitions into ‘Great Britain’ through the Union and the Empire. The realisation that the days of a ‘great’ Britain – of a Britain as a major world power – are long gone is something that the leaders and people of England will have no escape from in a devolved or fully independent England. Tony Blair tried to stoke up this truly megalomaniac delusion of Britain the World Power in order to keep the myth of Britain as the Union and Nation going for a bit longer after the body blow he dealt it through the uneven devolution settlement. But England’s greatness is based on more than the achievements of Great Britain, and England will find, and can only find, renewed confidence and purpose when it is able to forge a new direction in its own name.
That’s if the Britologists let her. Because the other side of the British coin is continuing Scottish engagement in – as opposed to English identification with – the Union that is mis-named Britain. The Scots have never truly bought into ‘Britain’ as the English did. For them, it was always a convenient name for a tie up with England, indeed a marriage of convenience with England; in which using the name ‘Great Britain’ is a way to pretend that it’s a marriage of equals and a true union (the creation of a new merged entity from two formerly separate entities), rather than what it effectively was: an English take-over of Scotland. Better for Scots’ pride – and what a reflection, it could be argued, on English diplomacy and self-effacement – to call it ‘Great Britain’ rather than ‘Greater England’! It could have been called something like that. After all, the expanded English kingdom incorporating Wales from 1284 had been simply called ‘England’.
Historically, Scots have been committed to ‘Great Britain’ essentially through perceived self-interest. Political union with England enabled the Scottish people and nation to benefit from, and share in creating, the wealth of the British Empire. But both before and after that flowering of English civilisation, the establishment of Great Britain has enabled Scots to participate, in a surrogate manner, in the public life of a greater nation than Scotland alone (if greatness is measured in terms of political and economic power, and cultural influence); indeed, it has enabled Scots to exercise political power over, and shape the whole body politic of, England-Britain. Until devolution (fair play), this was, after all, the only way Scots people could also have any political influence over their own nation, since Scotland was (and England still is) ruled by the UK parliament and executive.
So, to some extent, the Union of England and Scotland (one of the three unions from which the UK was created) has persisted so long because it enabled Scots to ‘punch above their weight’, both nationally and internationally. One wonders to what extent the Scot Tony Blair’s insistence that Britain should try to keep punching above its weight on the international stage had anything to do with the realisation of how little influence Scotland, as opposed to England, would have in the world as an independent country, compared with the as yet not entirely extinguished glamour of British imperial power.
An independent Scotland would indeed be a bit-part player: comparable, in economic scale and geo-political affinity, with the likes of Norway and the other Nordic states, and Ireland. The Republic of Scotland might well eventually become a wealthy country, as Alex Salmond was saying at the SNP conference over the weekend, just like these Northern European peers; but not a powerful one. By contrast, England would continue to belong at the European top table alongside the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland; and most likely, it would still sit at the global top table that is the United Nations Security Council, next to its US friend and ally.
The economic wealth and political power enjoyed by ‘the country’ would therefore not be fundamentally compromised by a break up of ‘the Union’ (of Britain, that is, not the UK), which Britologists claim would be the consequence of Scottish independence or English devolution. Indeed, in many respects, greater separation and autonomy for England and Scotland (whether full independence for both countries, or a looser relationship as part of a federal UK; or a federal UK minus Scotland) might in fact be the trigger for a rejuvenation of both countries’ economic and cultural life, and international relations. Certainly, freeing England from the disproportionate tax burden it carries on behalf of Scotland and Wales under the Barnett Formula could provide a major kick-start to its economy.
But – and here’s the rub – a devolved or independent England would leave the Labour Party unable ever to regain absolute power over England: the truly ‘great’ and certainly greater part of the Great Britain over which that party stands zealous guard. And it would leave Scottish and Welsh MPs (a greater proportion of whom are Labour than in England) bereft of their traditional role in influencing English affairs. As these are now separated from Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, these MPs can participate in making decisions on English laws and policies with apparent legitimacy only if these are termed British matters, not English.
But beyond this present political anomaly, referred to as the West Lothian Question, there is a fundamental question of national identity. [Funny that GB should be so keen to press on with plans for a British identity card system!] If our national identities were defined as English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish – rather than British – and if there were devolved and / or independent parliamentary bodies answerable to the people who call themselves English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, then not only the justification but the reality of Scottish people exercising political power over England in the name of Great Britain disappears. If the nations of the UK separate (if only to re-group in a federation), you no longer have Britain: the Union between England and Scotland. If you no longer have that, you have no possibility for Scottish people to be at the centre of power of a greater nation than Scotland alone. GB would have to pack his bags and go home from a global capital city to little old Kirkcaldy.
Better to pretend, then, that Britain still exists. ‘Still’? It doesn’t and never did; at least, not since 1800. But at least the name Britain is included in the name of the nation. And in that name, it’s still possible to wield disproportionate power over an English electorate that have not voted for you.
What do I say ‘England’? England, too, does not officially exist and hasn’t done so for longer than Great Britain; of course, how silly of me to forget! (Scotland and Wales have been allowed to return to official existence; but that leaves British regions, not England, doesn’t it?) But better not even whisper the name of England; otherwise, you might summon up the sleeping giant into existence, and then the whisker-thin justification for your power will disappear into a puff of spin. What better way to continue with the myth of Britain and the disproportionate system of power it props up than to pretend that Britain does exist, and England doesn’t? And even to enshrine that pretence in a new constitutional settlement that, by regionalising it, will do away with England once and for all?
So GB can rule only in the name of GB. His whole political identity is defined in terms of that mythical entity known fallaciously as Britain. His political identity, that is; don’t worry, he’s not going to deny his national identity as a Scot. There are Brits and Scots (not English); and because he’s both, he can exercise power over England (correction: Britain).
GB might represent Britain; but he doesn’t and cannot represent, in the office of prime minister, an England whose very existence he does not and cannot acknowledge. And that is why he can neither speak for England nor of her.